On August 26, 1903, the founding father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, proposed British East Africa as a safe haven for Jews, speaking at the Sixth Zionist Congress. The “Uganda scheme,” as it is usually called - even though the territory proposed was in part of today’s Kenya - caused bitter controversy within the Zionist movement.
In 1896, Herzl published his book “Der Judenstaat” - “The Jewish State”, and convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland the next year. That congress adopted what became known as the Basel Program, which aimed to establish "a legally assured home in Palestine” for the Jewish people.
Just a stopgap
The “Uganda scheme” is often misunderstood as a plan to abandon the dream of a Jewish state in the Mideast and opt for the next best thing instead. But for Herzl, Uganda was a stopgap measure to protect Jews from anti-Semitism and violence until the Zionist dream of a homeland in Palestine could be fulfilled.
The years around the turn of the 20th century were bloody and violent one for European Jewry, after a brief hiatus in the few preceding decades. To give one example, in April 1903, dozens of Jews were killed in the Kishniev pogroms - two days of mob violence in Czarist Russia, provoked by a blood libel.
The idea that the beleaguered Jews should settle in Uganda wasn't actually Herzl's brainchild: it came from the British.. Its roots were in a meeting that took place in 1902 between the Zionist leader and Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain. Herzl tried to convince him to allow Jewish settlement in Cyprus or Sinai as a temporary solution for endangered Jews. No dice.
When the two met again the following year, in April 1903, Chamberlain made his own proposal: Jewish settlement in eastern Africa. At first Herzl rejected the idea, but changed his mind when he realized his Sinai plan was not bearing fruit. Also, not only would accepting the Uganda scheme protect the Jews: it would be good for the Zionist movement’s ties to the British.
The British clarified their intentions regarding Uganda (actually, a 15,500 square km territory in today's Kenya) in a letter written in August, 1903. Sir Clement Hill, Superintendent of African Protectorates, wrote that Chamberlain “will be prepared to entertain favourably proposals for the establishment of a Jewish colony or settlement” in East Africa. Such a Jewish colony, the letter stated, would have local autonomy, with a “Jewish Official as chief of the local administration,” and a “free hand” when it came to religious and domestic matters. This autonomy would be conditional on the British government “exercising general control.”
Herzl brought this proposal before the Sixth Zionist Congress, where delegates did vote, 295-178, to send an “investigatory commission” to check out the territory.
But the idea sent shockwaves through the congress. The Russian delegates walked out of the hall, while others threatened to do so. In their eyes, the Uganda scheme went against the very ideological basis of Zionism.
As a gesture to reassure delegates, Herzl reportedly recited Psalm 137 at the last session of the congress: “If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning.”
Yet the controversy refused to abate. In December that year, student Zelig Louban opened fire on Zionist luminary Max Nordau at a Hanukkah ball in Paris shouting “Death to Nordau, the East African.” It was clear what Louban was referring to.
It had other repercussions for the Zionist movement, too. On notable outcome was the birth of The Jewish Territorialist Organization (ITO). This group grew out of the support that some people had for the Uganda scheme. Led by British-Jewish writer Israel Zangwill, the ITO advocated for Jewish settlement in various parts of the world.
In 1905, the investigatory commission reported on its findings from East Africa at the Seventh Zionist Congress. The scheme was voted down, never to be tabled for discussion again, and the Zionists reaffirmed their commitment to a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
By then, Herzl had died of a heart condition at the tender age of 44. According to some, his death in 1904 was partly due to the controversy and criticism levied at him over the Uganda proposal.